Monday, the commemoration of the Great War, the First World War, began. It’s a commemoration that will go on for years, marking the entire conflict, one that many nations involved in the war will spend millions of dollars on.
And already, the tone is shifting in just the sort of way that created that war in the first place.
Instead of remembering the abject misery and torment of the people who fought, we’re already hearing about the glory of war.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking on Monday at the commemoration of the exact day the war was declared, cited the conflict as a defining moment in the creation of this country.
“Amid the appalling loss, by any measure, Canada, as a truly independent country, was forged in the fires of the Western Front,” Harper said.
“When the great nations of the world gathered, we must never forget that our place at the table was not given to us,” he said.
“It was bought and paid for on the gas-choked battlefield at Ypres, where John McCrae wrote his immortal work ‘In Flanders Fields’; at Vimy Ridge, where Canadian men united under Canadian leaders, achieved a victory that had eluded so many others; in the long, muddy slaughter along the River Somme; in the drenched and cratered wasteland of Passchendaele, where Lieutenant Robert Shankland earned his Victoria Cross; in the sombre and blood-soaked field hospitals, where Beatrice McNair would become one of the first Canadian women to receive military honours for gallantry, standing by her post and comforting her patients while under bombardment.”
Perhaps Harper can be forgiven for the jingoism somewhat, because he was, after all, speaking to an audience that both expected and wanted that sort of message.
But suggesting the country was somehow built by the gutting of its youth? Some 66,000 Canadians died and more than 172,000 were injured. In Newfoundland, essentially an entire generation of young men was put to death, and the debt from that war meant the end of responsible government for the Dominion of Newfoundland.
Building nations? No.
I may be naïve, but I believe nations are forged by the fairness of their justice systems, by their willingness to support and improve the lives of all of their citizens, and by their respect for human and individual rights. By their desire to protect the environment for future generations, and by their protection of natural resources for the good of all citizens, not just a fortunate and wealthy few.
That great nations are measured by how they protect the rights of minorities, rather than by how successfully the have their young people die.
Don’t forget, in the First World War, people died for a chess game of international politics. You can make the argument that the Second World War truly had to happen, that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had to be stopped. It’s harder to argue that millions had to die primarily because of long-standing territorial disputes and imperialism in Europe.
I know the seductiveness of marching in an honour guard, of wrapping yourself vicariously in the deeds of others. I know how easy it is to get swept up in the moment, to think of fighting for honour instead of simply trying to scrabble your way out of a horror of mud, explosions and poison gas.
There’s a very careful balance to be kept here, especially at a time when there are wars being fought over territory in many parts of the world, and all sorts of justification are being thrown out for all kinds of bloody behaviour.
Want to honour those who went to war in 1914? Find out all you can about one soldier — one average soldier. Their hometown, their life before the war, where they went, where fought, who they loved, where they died. And how pathetically young they were to have their lives wasted. Thank them, as much as you can, given that they are neither living, nor had much chance to live.
And leave the pomp and circumstance to the politicians who march nations to war, but who then sit safely on the sidelines.
Back, then, to Stephen Harper on Monday.
“No longer can they tell their stories of courage and honour and duty. But every time that we take a stand to defend the values for which they fought, and for which so many died, we remember their stories in the only way that really matters,” Harper said.
He’s right about that.
Young people (because soldiers are almost universally young people) who are yet to die in the name of other people’s stands will be in a unique position to remember the experiences of death and injury — because they will experience the same loneliness and horror.
The only ones who find even a glimmer of glory in war are those who haven’t had to fight in one.
Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.